When he concluded his story, Murtagh had said, “Galbatorix was going to have you killed. … He knew Elva wasn’t guarding you as she used to, so he decided it was the perfect time to have you assassinated. I only found out about his plan by chance; I happened to be with him when he gave the orders to the Black Hand.” Murtagh shook his head. “It’s my fault. I convinced him to have you brought here instead. He liked that; he knew you would lure Eragon here that much faster. … It was the only way I could keep him from killing you. … I’m sorry. … I’m sorry.” And he buried his head in his arms.
“I would rather have died.”
“I know,” he said in a hoarse voice. “Will you forgive me?”
That she had not answered. His revelation only made her more uneasy. Why should he care to save her life, and what did he expect in return?
Murtagh had said nothing more for a while. Then, sometimes weeping and sometimes raging, he told her of his upbringing in Galbatorix’s court, of the distrust and jealousy he had faced as the son of Morzan, of the nobles who had sought to use him to win favor with the king, and of his longing for the mother he barely remembered. Twice he mentioned Eragon and cursed him for a fool favored by fortune. “He would not have done so well if our places had been reversed. But our mother chose to take him to Carvahall, not me.” He spat on the floor.
She found the whole episode maudlin and self-pitying, and his weakness did nothing but inspire contempt in her until he recounted how the Twins had abducted him from Farthen Dûr, how they had mistreated him on the way to Urû’baen, and how Galbatorix had broken him once they arrived. Some of the tortures he described were worse than her own and, if true, gave her a slight measure of sympathy for his own plight.
“Thorn was my undoing,” Murtagh finally confessed. “When he hatched for me and we bonded …” He shook his head. “I love him. How could I not? I love him even as Eragon loves Saphira. The moment I touched him, I was lost. Galbatorix used him against me. Thorn was stronger than me. He never gave up. But I could not bear to see him suffer, so I swore my loyalty to the king, and after that …” Murtagh’s lips curled with revulsion. “After that, Galbatorix went into my mind. He learned everything about me, and then he taught me my true name. And now I am his. … His forever.”
Then he leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes, and she watched the tears roll down his cheeks.
Eventually, he stood, and as he walked toward the door, he paused next to her and touched her on the shoulder. His nails, she noted, were clean and trimmed, but nowhere near as well cared for as her jailer’s. He murmured a few words in the ancient language, and a moment later, her pain melted away, although her wounds looked the same as ever.
As he took his hand away, she said, “I cannot forgive … but I understand.”
Whereupon he nodded and stumbled away, leaving her to wonder if she had found a new ally.
AS NASUADA LAY on the slab, sweating and shivering, every part of her body aching with pain, she found herself wishing that Murtagh would return, if only so he could again free her from her agony.
When at last the door to the eight-sided chamber swung open, she was unable to suppress her relief, but her relief turned to bitter disappointment when she heard the shuffling footsteps of her jailer descending the stairs that led into the room.
As he had once before, the stocky, narrow-shouldered man bathed her wounds with a wet cloth, then bound them with strips of linen. When he released her from the restraints so that she could visit the privy room, she found she was too weak to make any attempt to grab the knife on the tray of food. Instead, she contented herself with thanking the man for his help and, for the second time, complimenting him on his nails, which were even shinier than before and which he quite obviously wanted her to see, for he kept holding his hands where she could not help but look at them.
After he fed her and departed, she tried to sleep, but the constant pain of her wounds made it impossible for her to do more than doze.
Her eyes snapped open as she heard the bar to the door of the chamber being thrown open.
Not again! she thought, panic welling up inside her. Not so soon! I can’t bear it. … I’m not strong enough. Then she reined in her fear and told herself, Don’t. Don’t say such things or else you’ll start to believe them. Still, although she was able to master her conscious reactions, she could not stop her heart from pounding at twice its normal speed.
A single pair of footsteps echoed in the room, and then Murtagh appeared at the corner of her vision. He wore no mask, and his expression was somber.
This time he healed her first, without waiting. The relief she felt as her pain abated was so intense, it bordered on ecstasy. In all her life, she had never experienced a sensation quite so pleasurable as the draining away of the agony.
She gasped slightly at the feeling. “Thank you.”
Murtagh nodded; then he went over to the wall and sat in the same spot as before.
She studied him for a minute. The skin on his knuckles was smooth and whole again, and he appeared sober, if grim and close-mouthed. His clothes had once been fine, but they were now torn, frayed, and patched, and she spotted what looked like several cuts in the undersides of his sleeves. She wondered if he had been fighting.
“Does Galbatorix know where you are?” she finally asked.
“He might, but I doubt it. He’s busy playing with his favorite concubines. That, or he’s asleep. It’s the middle of the night right now. Besides, I cast a spell to keep anyone from listening to us. He could break it if he wants, but I would know.”
“What if he finds out?”
“He will find out, you know, if he wears down my defenses.”
“Then don’t let him. You’re stronger than me; you have no one he can threaten. You can resist him, unlike me. … The Varden are fast approaching, as are the elves from the north. If you can hold out for another few days, there’s a chance … there’s a chance maybe they can free you.”
“You don’t believe they can, do you?”
He shrugged again.
“… Then help me escape.”
A bark of hard laughter erupted from his throat. “How? I can’t do much more than put on my boots without Galbatorix’s permission.”
“You could loosen my cuffs, and when you leave, perhaps you could forget to secure the door.”
His upper lip curled in a sneer. “There are two men stationed outside, there are wards set upon this room to warn Galbatorix if a prisoner steps outside it, and there are hundreds of guards between here and the nearest gate. You’d be lucky to make it to the end of the hallway, if that.”
“Perhaps, but I’d like to try.”
“You’d only get yourself killed.”
“Then help me. If you wanted, you could find a way to fool his wards.”
“I can’t. My oaths won’t let me use magic against him.”
“What of the guards, though? If you held them off long enough for me to reach the gate, I could hide myself in the city, and it wouldn’t matter if Galbatorix knew—”
“The city is his. Besides, wherever you went, he could find you with a spell. The only way you would be safe from him would be to get far away from here before the alarm roused him, and that you could not do even on dragonback.”
“There must be a way!”
“If there were …” He smiled sourly and looked down. “It’s pointless to consider.”
Frustrated, she shifted her gaze to the ceiling for a few moments. Then, “At least let me out of these cuffs.”
He released his breath in a sound of exasperation.
“Just so I can stand up,” she said. “I hate lying on this stone, and it’s making my eyes ache having to look at you down there.”
He hesitated, and then he rose to his feet in a single graceful movement, came over to the slab, and began to unfasten the padded restraints around her wrists and ankles
. “Don’t think you can kill me,” he said in a low voice. “You can’t.”
As soon as she was free, he retreated to his former position and again lowered himself onto the floor, where he sat staring into the distance. It was, she thought, his attempt to give her some privacy as she sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the slab. Her shift was in tatters—burned through in dozens of locations—and it did a poor job of concealing her form, not that it had covered much to begin with.
The marble floor was cool against the soles of her feet as she made her way over to Murtagh and sat next to him. She wrapped her arms around herself in an attempt to preserve her modesty.
“Was Tornac really your only friend growing up?” she asked.
Murtagh still did not look at her. “No, but he was as close to a father as I’ve ever had. He taught me, comforted me … berated me when I was too arrogant, and saved me from making a fool of myself more times than I can remember. If he were still alive, he would have beaten me silly for getting as drunk as I did the other day.”
“You said he died during your escape from Urû’baen?”
He snorted. “I thought I was being clever. I bribed one of the watchmen to leave a side gate open for us. We were going to slip out of the city under the cover of darkness, and Galbatorix was only supposed to find out what had happened once it was too late to catch us. He knew from the very start, though. How, I’m not sure, but I guess he was scrying me the whole while. When Tornac and I went through the gate, we found soldiers waiting for us on the other side. … Their orders were to bring us back unharmed, but we fought, and one of them killed Tornac. The finest swordsman in all the Empire brought down by a knife in the back.”
“But Galbatorix let you escape.”
“I don’t think he expected us to fight. Besides, his attention was directed elsewhere that night.”
She frowned as she saw the oddest half smile appear on Murtagh’s face.
“I counted the days,” he said. “That was when the Ra’zac were in Palancar Valley, searching for Saphira’s egg. So you see, Eragon lost his foster father almost at the same time I lost mine. Fate has a cruel sense of humor, don’t you think?”
“Yes, it does. … But if Galbatorix could scry you, why didn’t he track you down and bring you back to Urû’baen later on?”
“He was playing with me, I think. I went to stay at the estate of a man I believed I could trust. As usual, I was mistaken, though I only found that out later, once the Twins brought me back here. Galbatorix knew where I was, and he knew I was still angry over Tornac’s death, so he was content to leave me at the estate while he hunted for Eragon and Brom. … I surprised him, though; I left, and by the time he learned of my disappearance, I was already on my way to Dras-Leona. That’s why Galbatorix went to Dras-Leona, you know. It wasn’t to chastise Lord Tábor over his behavior—although he certainly did—it was to find me. But he was too late. By the time he arrived at the city, I had already met up with Eragon and Saphira, and we had set off for Gil’ead.”
“Why did you leave?” she asked.
“Didn’t Eragon tell you? Because—”
“No, not Dras-Leona. Why did you leave the estate? You were safe there, or so you thought. So why did you leave?”
Murtagh was quiet for a while. “I wanted to strike back at Galbatorix, and I wanted to make a name for myself apart from my father’s. My whole life, people have looked at me differently because I am the son of Morzan. I wanted them to respect me for my deeds, not his.” He finally looked at her, a quick glance out of the corner of one eye. “I suppose I got what I wanted, but again, fate has a cruel sense of humor.”
She wondered if there had been anyone else in Galbatorix’s court whom he had cared for, but she decided it would be a dangerous topic to broach. So, instead, she asked, “How much does Galbatorix really know about the Varden?”
“Everything, so far as I can tell. He has more spies than you think.”
She pressed her arms against her belly as her gut twisted. “Do you know of any way to kill him?”
“A knife. A sword. An arrow. Poison. Magic. The usual ways. The problem is, he has too many spells wound about himself for anyone or anything to have a chance of harming him. Eragon is luckier than most; Galbatorix doesn’t want to kill him, so he may get to attack the king more than once. But even if Eragon could attack him a hundred times, he wouldn’t find a way past Galbatorix’s wards.”
“Every puzzle has a solution, and every man has a weakness,” Nasuada insisted. “Does he love any of his concubines?”
The look on Murtagh’s face answered her well enough. Then he said, “Would it be so bad if Galbatorix remains king? The world he envisions is a good world. If he defeats the Varden, the whole of Alagaësia will finally be at peace. He’ll put an end to the misuse of magic; elves, dwarves, and humans will no longer have cause to hate each other. What’s more, if the Varden lose, Eragon and I can be together as brothers ought to be. But if they win, it’ll mean the death of Thorn and me. It’ll have to.”
“Oh? And what of me?” she asked. “If Galbatorix wins, shall I become his slave, to order about as he wills?” Murtagh refused to answer, but she saw the tendons on the back of his hands tighten. “You can’t give up, Murtagh.”
“What other choice do I have!” he shouted, filling the room with echoes.
She stood and stared down at him. “You can fight! Look at me. … Look at me!”
He reluctantly lifted his gaze.
“You can find ways to work against him. That’s what you can do! Even if your oaths will allow only the smallest of rebellions, the smallest of rebellions might still prove to be his undoing.” She restated his question for effect. “What other choice do you have? You can go around feeling helpless and miserable for the rest of your life. You can let Galbatorix turn you into a monster. Or you can fight!” She spread her arms so that he could see all of the burn marks on her. “Do you enjoy hurting me?”
“No!” he exclaimed.
“Then fight, blast you! You have to fight or you will lose everything you are. As will Thorn.”
She held her ground as he sprang to his feet, lithe as a cat, and moved toward her until he was only a few inches away. The muscles in his jaw bunched and knotted while he glowered at her, breathing heavily through his nostrils. She recognized his expression, for it was one she had seen many times before. His was the look of a man whose pride had been offended and who wanted to lash out at the person who had insulted him. It was dangerous to keep pushing him, but she knew she had to, for she might never get the chance again.
“If I can keep fighting,” she said, “then so can you.”
“Back to the stone,” he said in a harsh voice.
“I know you’re not a coward, Murtagh. Better to die than to live as a slave to one such as Galbatorix. At least then you might accomplish some good, and your name might be remembered with a measure of kindness after you’re gone.”
“Back to the stone,” he growled, grabbing her by the arm and dragging her over to the slab.
She allowed him to push her onto the ash-colored block, fasten the restraints around her wrists and ankles, and then tighten the strap around her head. When he finished, he stood looking at her, his eyes dark and wild, the lines of his body like cords stretched taut.
“You have to decide whether you are willing to risk your life in order to save yourself,” she said. “You and Thorn both. And you have to decide now, while there is still time. Ask yourself: what would Tornac have wanted you to do?”
Without answering, Murtagh extended his right arm and placed his hand upon the upper part of her chest, his palm hot against her skin. Her breath hitched at the shock of the contact.
Then, hardly louder than a whisper, he began to speak in the ancient language. As the strange words tumbled from his lips, her fear grew ever stronger.
He spoke for what seemed like minutes. She felt no different when he stopped, but that was neither a favorable n
or an unfavorable sign where magic was concerned.
Cool air washed over the patch on her chest, chilling it as Murtagh lifted his hand away. He stepped back then and started to walk past her, toward the entrance of the chamber. She was about to call out to him—to ask what he had done to her—when he paused and said, “That should shield you from the pain of most any wound, but you’ll have to pretend otherwise, or Galbatorix will discover what I’ve done.”
And then he left.
“Thank you,” she whispered to the empty room.
She spent a long time pondering their conversation. It seemed unlikely that Galbatorix had sent Murtagh to talk with her, but unlikely or not, it remained a possibility. Also, she found herself torn as to whether Murtagh was, at heart, a good person or a bad one. She thought back to King Hrothgar—who had been like an uncle to her when she was growing up—and how Murtagh had killed him on the Burning Plains. Then she thought of Murtagh’s childhood and the many hardships he had faced, and how he had allowed Eragon and Saphira to go free when he could have just as easily brought them to Urû’baen.
Yet even if Murtagh had once been honorable and trustworthy, she knew that his enforced servitude might have corrupted him.
In the end, she decided she would ignore Murtagh’s past and judge him on his actions in the present and those alone. Good, bad, or some combination thereof, he was a potential ally, and she needed his help if she could get it. If he proved false, then she would be no worse off than she already was. But if he proved true, then she might be able to escape from Urû’baen, and that was well worth the risk.
In the absence of pain, she slept long and deep for the first time since her arrival at the capital. She awoke feeling more hopeful than before, and again fell to tracing the lines painted on the ceiling. The thin blue line she was following led her to notice a small white shape on the corner of a tile that she had previously overlooked. It took her a moment to realize that the discoloration was where a chip had fallen free.